The brains behind the brain: A closer look at Mac's neuroscience department

By Kristin Riegel

In the last ten years researchers have learned more about the brain than they did in the previous century; in my first ten minutes at the Brain Awareness Committee meeting I learned more about neuroscience and the “brains” behind it than I had in my year and a half at Mac.Tucked away in a small conference room with gray walls and little room for more than a table and a few chairs, the Brain Awareness Committee met on Tuesday to discuss the final events for National Brain Awareness Week. The committee, comprised of students in the neuroscience department’s senior seminar, has spent the last week trying to bring recognition to the most complex structure in the human body.

“You are your brain,” said Tony Carr ’08. “Your brain is everything you have ever thought, you have ever heard, you have ever seen.”

With the idea that neuroscience is a perspective for viewing the world, as well as a “hard” science, ten students in the neuroscience department’s senior seminar are reaching out to Macalester and the larger community. From “brain factoid” table tents in Café Mac to a 30-minute presentation at the St. Paul Academy on neuroscience and the workings of the brain, these students are trying to dispel the myth of neuroscience as an elite field.

“I’d like to impress upon them [students at SPA] that everything they already do is neuroscience,” Joe Barter ’08 said. “Everyone studies the brain, they just don’t know it.”

For Barter, neuroscience is more than just a field of study, neuroscience is a perspective that he applies to every aspect of his life.

“I’ve always been interested in how the brain evolves and how it sheds light on things outside the scope of science, like ethics,” said Barter. “When I was looking at the most profound questions in life I noticed that if you trace them back far enough you always end up at ‘where did we evolve from?’ From there I connected evolution and the brain.”

Using the concept of consilience, in which everything is one continuum of knowledge, Barter contends that the social sciences, including economics and philosophy, are deeply rooted in neuroscience.

“Humanities are just an extension of science and what the brain does,” said Barter.

However, for other neuroscience majors, the world isn’t just an extension of neuroscience, neuroscience is the world and the world is neuroscience.

Inspired by Jorge Luis Borges’ “The Aleph,” Tony Carr ’08 set out to discover his own aleph; he found it in the brain.

“The aleph is a mythological object that allows you to view the entire universe . . . but in viewing the aleph you see the universe and in the universe is the aleph itself. The universe is inside the aleph and the aleph is inside the universe,” said Carr. “For me, the brain is the aleph.”

Through studying the brain, Carr believes that he is able to study and understand things that exist outside of it.

“To a certain extent, everything we know represents the brain and is created by the brain,” said Carr. “So in a very simple way, it’s a great way of studying everything.”

For other students, neuroscience has offered a chance to study more minute aspects of life. Lisa Norback ’08, a musician and neurology major, has focused her studies on music cognition, the study of music and the brain.

Norback, who is completing directed research on the Mozart effect for her senior project, states that the neuroscience department, despite its low profile on campus, has a strong program that offers a variety of research and out of the classroom learning opportunites.

“Our neuroscience department serves as a model for other [neuroscience] departments in the states,” said Norback. “Our department here is very good.”

Every year, about five to 10 students major in neuroscience. Norback is hoping that through Brain Awareness week, the Macalester community will become more aware of both the workings of the brain and the department she loves.

“[Neuroscience] may be a subject area people haven’t given much thought to before,” Norback said. “I also think it is important to raise awareness, in the context of Macalester, about the department. There are a lot of people who are very interested [in neuroscience] and active in the department.”

As Brain Awareness Week comes to a close, Norback, Barter and Carr recommend that everyone take the time to learn a little bit about the brain.

“The life of the brain and the life of the mind are identical to life itself, or life as we know it,” Carr said. “The brain is a great place to start understanding the world.